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Lost in Translation: Extirpation of "Block" in the 21st Century?

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,212
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29
When my mom and dad were children in the 1940s, they lived in an urban neighborhood in a small industrial town. When they met new friends, they would tell their parents that Jimmy or Susie lived three or five blocks away. Of course, today, as urban planners, we know what they meant. The physical environment permitted sensible use of the term block:



But today, do children growing up in today's suburbs and exurbs use the term block? Do they even know what it connotes? One day I will be a parent, and if I were ever to live in a neighborhood as depicted below, will my children ever use block as I understand it to be? There are no blocks in this neighborhood - I even hesitate to call it that - are there? Take a look a share your thoughts:

 

Mud Princess

Cyburbian
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4,898
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27
As a child, I lived in an older suburb and yes, we also had blocks. In those days, the streets in my town were laid out very similar to those in the cities, except that the lots were larger, houses were set back, and not all streets had sidewalks.

They just don't build suburbs like they used to. I can't imagine anyone saying "I live in the next cul-de-sac." I would think that people who live in the environment depicted in your second photo would characterize their location as the such-and-such development or subdivision, as in "I live over in Birchwood Meadows." Of course, this doesn't necessarily give an indication of distance; you're expected to know where these developments are located. The other option is to indicate what street you live on. That probably works well for cul-de-sac and short dead-end type streets.
 

Dan

Dear Leader
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18,701
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69
Here's an air photo of the neighborhood I grew up in when I was a kid. Mom and Dad lived there up until the early 1990s.



Hard to believe, but this neighborhood was considered suburbia in the 1920s. 1,400 square foot (130m2) houses on 30'(10m)x120'(40m) lots, with about a third of the housing stock being two-flats. Many of the homes shared identical floorplans; they were the tract homes of the day.Look at an old city directory, and you'll find early residents of my block were linesmen, railroad freight clerks, teachers, carpenters, greengrocers, pipefitters, salesmen, boiler operators ... the middle class of the day.

Buffalo had blocks, but they were loooooong. Look at some air photos of some neighborhoods, and you'll see up to 120 lots -- 60 on each side of the street -- fronting a single block. My block had 66 houses on it. Even in the pro-urban environment of today, that would be considered a bit too much; new urbanists promote short blocks, no more than about 200m long.
 

Cullen

Member
Messages
33
Points
2
I think even in nonuniform layout sitations people still use block to connote distance. At least, people who used it before may continue to use it, and manage to mold the conception of block to fit these situations. Additionally, one can still reflect on distance in terms of house or street, as in X houses away or X streets over. The use of block is a strange thing though and I'm not sure if younger people are picking up on it, or if their friends even live that close to them anymore so that they might reflect upon the distance in such a manner. Block, however, as a referential point, may prove to be a remnant of times when it most often connoted a set of parcels hemmed in by streets on four sides.
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
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2,549
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25
I think the notion of block is used more like the term "sense of community" these days. It is more of a way to describe a neighborhood unit than a planning/engineering term. I grew up on a traditional block and have actually never lived in an area with a curvlinear street design, but i had many friends that lived in neighborhoods like those depicted in the second illustration. They still used the term block. They had block parties and block watches. They would say things like "oh he lives down the block." So I think that even though we have mostly abandoned the traditional engineering notion of what constitutes a block, people will continue to use the term.
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,212
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29
Repo Man said:
So I think that even though we have mostly abandoned the traditional engineering notion of what constitutes a block, people will continue to use the term.
Do you think so? I have my doubts. Perhaps the future population of engineers, architects, planners, and related professionals will continue to use the term, but for everyday folks removed from that realm, I have my suspicions that the term could easily disappear from their consciousness.

But I could be wrong. I remember a television commercial that aired soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one that showed a before-image of a set of traditional urban row houses and then an after-image of all those homes with flags blowing out front. It may have been a Sallie-Mae commercial. Perhaps the notion of a neighborhood hits such a powerful emotional chord with Americans that the associated lexicon will never be lost.
 

Rumpy Tunanator

Cyburbian
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4,473
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That picture Wanigas? shows of the winding cul de sacs is sometimes referred to as "pods" in the real estate business, although I don't think they would call them that when trying to sell them to people. Seems kind of space like or if you were talking with aliens.
-"Dad, I met some kids over in pod AU40900, can I go play?" "Sure little Timmy, just don't get lost".
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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Rumpy Tunanator said:
Seems kind of space like or if you were talking with aliens.
-"Dad, I met some kids over in pod AU40900, can I go play?" "Sure little Timmy, just don't get lost".
I know. Language is powerful stuff. Even though it doesn't look, feel, or act as a "neighborhood" in a traditional sense, we will still call it that.
 

Mud Princess

Cyburbian
Messages
4,898
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27
Wanigas? said:
I know. Language is powerful stuff. Even though it doesn't look, feel, or act as a "neighborhood" in a traditional sense, we will still call it that.
It's like the use of the term "community" for a subdivision. I hear that one on the real estate shows all the time: "This lovely community, set on the outskirts of Nowhere, features..." C'mon, guys, it's not a community, it's a housing development! (And anyway, if it's a community, where are the stores, the government buildings, etc.?)
 

Gedunker

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Just how do you define "neighborhood"? Ask a kid, a teen, and older folks from the same area and the boundaries will reflect their mobility. Or lack of mobility.

I believe it is harder than you might think to define neighborhood. I have taught citizen planner classes where we have invited neighborhood associations and when I ask the question I get all sorts of responses (and sometimes blank stares).

My favorite exercise is to have them draw their neighborhood boundaries on a map. Almost without fail, they will go out of their way to exclude industrial or commercial buildings even though these are clearly within the neighborhood. Of course, these are inner-city folks and not folks from "the country" :-D
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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Gedunker said:
I believe it is harder than you might think to define neighborhood.
I think you are correct. Perhaps it is more of an abstract concept - like a feeling or emotion - than an actual physical place.
 

Plannerbabs

Cyburbian
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1,037
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Seems like the concept of neighborhood is also informed somewhat by the media, from Mr. Rogers to The Truman Show. So the average person's concept of neighborhood will include the things they expect to have, like a park, a grocery store, a school or church--and exclude the things they don't expect/use/like/need, like the industrial uses Gedunker mentioned, or uses the resident doesn't consider appropriate (fill in the blank here, could be anything). Using the terms "neighborhood" and "block", even though they may seem wildly inappropriate for a collection of cul-de-sacs and strip malls, may help define an inhospitable landscape in familiar terms, and thus make it more familiar and appealing. On the surface, acres of asphalt and gas stations and winding roads with no trees may not be very welcoming, but if it's home, you have to re-invent the way you see it to make it home. So perhaps we're just marketing sprawl to ourselves, and the terms will survive more as marketing concepts than actual planning or design concepts, except of course in the New Urban enclaves.

(climbs down off soapbox). I have got to stop drinking so much coffee in the afternoons. Sorry about the long-windedness.
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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Plannerbabs said:
Using the terms "neighborhood" and "block", even though they may seem wildly inappropriate for a collection of cul-de-sacs and strip malls, may help define an inhospitable landscape in familiar terms, and thus make it more familiar and appealing....

...So perhaps we're just marketing sprawl to ourselves, and the terms will survive more as marketing concepts than actual planning or design concepts...
Well said! An excellent post!
 

simulcra

Member
Messages
127
Points
6
in plano, we did use the term "block" a few rare instances. But of course, it was just basically synonymous with "mile" essentially, since our super blocks were arund 1.3 miles long each. So, a friend might say, "yah, main event is like 3 blocks down from my house, so that would be about 5 or so minutes to go through."

back in carrollton, our suburbs were slightly more sanely built (but not too much), so the term "block" actually did exist, but being in elementary school, we used "street" more often (sorry, i don't see the logical connect there.)
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,212
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29
Gedunker said:
I believe it is harder than you might think to define neighborhood.
I know I already responded to your quote, but I got thinking: Don't we, the planners, do this all the time in our professional practice? How many neighborhood plans have we created through the years? Our plans contain maps of neighborhoods all the time. Obviously, for better or worse, we do define neighborhoods. We couldn't do our work if we couldn't do that. Are we pandering to the masses or is there some truth to what we do?
 

JNA

Cyburbian Plus
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25,789
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61
Growing up the neighborhood for me was at the social interaction level -
the elementary school I went to (back then you walked or biked to school);
the Cub Scout Den/ Scout Troop I was in.
and believe it or not I am still touch with a few of those from 30 yrs ago
- strength of friendships. :)
 

passdoubt

Cyburbian
Messages
407
Points
13
From my experience growing up the Philly suburbs in the 80s and 90s I'd counter that "neighborhood" is indeed loosely applied to a group of people who live near eachother and have social cohesion, but say that a "block" is definately a very concrete term for houses in a box of land separated by streets. Kids do say "in the next development over" or "three cul-de-sacs down." They don't call them blocks unless they are blocks.

But I think the difference in experience here may be that while most suburbanites in these areas live in winding suburban housing developments, real blocks are always close by. Unlike the South and the West, there were grid-layout towns in the suburbs 200 years ago and they're still there today. The new developments now fill in the townships around them, so people see the contrast between "Main St." and "Meadowlark Manner" and recognize it. If anything they may look at it as a class distinction because the blocks are where the older, cheaper rowhouses are.

"I'm still -- I'm still Jenny from the block," typifies it.
 

AubieTurtle

Cyburbian
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894
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Rumpy Tunanator said:
That picture Wanigas? shows of the winding cul de sacs is sometimes referred to as "pods" in the real estate business, although I don't think they would call them that when trying to sell them to people. Seems kind of space like or if you were talking with aliens.
-"Dad, I met some kids over in pod AU40900, can I go play?" "Sure little Timmy, just don't get lost".
I used "pod" one day to describe a suburban friend's neighborhood. Without missing a beat, he asked how life was in the "hive", refering to my condo building. Neither term is very appealing.

Block can be used in the context of the swirling development patterns of today's suburbia. In general, I think of blocks as starting and ending at any intersection. When viewed from above this doesn't make a whole lot of sense because you end up with overlapping blocks and lots of other oddities. But when a youngester is walking from house to house, everytime they pass an intersection, they can think of it as a new block.

I will admit that sometimes when using the term block in the city, I apply it to major streets. I use to tell people I live about a block and a half from work since work was at 1800 and I lived at 1660. On the way to work I would cross one major street and half a dozen tiny ones. I never really considered the tiny streets as dividing the block.

Maybe in 100 years there will be a discussion on Cyburbia2100 about just where this odd term "block" came from.
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,212
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29
I really like ablarc's post on Medieval Boston. The massive demolition of many blocks is quite dramatic.

By March 23, 1959, the West End was disappearing rapidly, receding like a hair line:



By September 1960, it was gone. Expunged. Annihilated. Erased. Cleared. Ready for Urban Renewal:



“An Obsolete Neighborhood,” declared the Boston Redevelopment Agency literature, displaying a figure-ground to kill for, “And a New Plan”:



Like Dan's pic of the long blocks in Buffalo, ablarc's pics of the changing urban fabric in Boston are quite dramatic. I like looking at them. Does anyone else have pics they can share of unique blocks or show the change in scale of blocks over time? Further, what examples can we come up with that show a reversing trend, of before and after infill developments, of holes or huge parking lots now occupied by structures and activity?

Here's an aerial of southwest Detroit, near the Mexicantown area. The red outline denotes 1990 TIGER Census geography for tract 5234. That is indeed a park you see on the southwest edge of the tract. It's called Clark Park. And yes, that is I-75 on the southern boundary of the park. Clark Park is surrounded by dense single-family home neighborhoods. There are no high rises in the vicinity. Vernor is the commercial strip. I post this image because it reminds me Dan's Buffalo pic.

 
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